By Ashley S. Jenkins and Kristina M. Launey

Seyfarth Synopsis: A Puerto Rico federal court holding reminds us that an animal that performs work or tasks for a person with a psychiatric disability – such as identifying the onset of a panic attack and taking action to mitigate its effect – is a service animal.

It is a common misconception that service animals are limited to dogs that wear a “guide dog” vest and assist individuals who are blind.  

recent ruling out of a federal trial court in Puerto Rico serves as a reminder that service animals perform different work and tasks for individuals with a variety of disabilities, such as detecting the onset of a panic attack and/or decreasing the duration of the event for individuals with severe anxiety or panic disorders.

In this case, an employee at a fast food restaurant in Puerto Rico mistakenly believed that only “guide dogs for the blind” were allowed inside the restaurant. The restaurant employee told the plaintiff she could not enter the restaurant with her American Bulldog mix (often referred to as a “bully breed”), because her dog was not a “guide dog.”  After the plaintiff explained that service animals can be dogs that perform other work or tasks, the restaurant operator allowed her to enter with her service animal but she filed a lawsuit anyway.  The court concluded that the initial denial did not violate the ADA and granted summary judgment to the restaurant.

The ADA defines a service animal as a dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.  In this case, the plaintiff claimed she suffers from severe anxiety disorder and panic disorder, “conditions that affect her neurological system, her brain and her day-to-day activities of thinking and standing upright during dizzy spells associated to panic episodes.”  The court found that the plaintiff’s dog is a service animal because it “detect[s] the Plaintiff’s panic attacks, [and] gets close to and distracts her to help her out of the panic attack quicker.”  

While a relatively simple case, it is a variation of a fact pattern we see often: employees who are not properly trained making and acting upon unfounded assumptions about what types of dogs can be service animals, and what types of tasks service animals may perform. While not an issue in this case, we also see employees who incorrectly believe that service animals must have documentation or vests/collars identifying them as service animals. 

This case reminds us that: (1) not all disabilities are visible; (2) service animals provide a variety of work and services to assist individuals with disabilities; and (3) public accommodations cannot exclude a service dog because it is an aggressive breed, as long as it is not out of control.  And finally, don’t forget that miniature horses are also protected under the ADA as long as they are trained to perform work or tasks for individuals with disabilities.  The rules that apply to service dogs also apply to them.

Edited by Minh Vu